NOVEMBER 3, 2011
Despite starring in The Manitou, Tony Curtis’ strangest horror association is actually his random, unbilled cameo in Chamber Of Horrors, in which his character is summoned to a gathering of some sort, he makes an odd joke about having a full house (he’s playing poker), and then is never seen or spoken of again. To say its extraneous is being too generous – I rewound it twice because my brain couldn’t process just what in the hell it was doing in the movie. I even toyed with the idea that it WASN’T Curtis at all but some other actor who might appear later, but no.
As I later learned, the real reason for his appearance was part of the attempt to turn this movie, which originated as a would-be pilot for a TV show about a House of Wax (not THE House of Wax), into something more suitable for theaters when it was (quite incorrectly) deemed too intense for television. So they added some cameos and also a William Castle-esque gimmick called the Fear Flasher, which would alert you when something really terrifying was supposed to happen. That they tell you right at the start that it’s only going to be used four times in the 100 minute film is a pretty clear indicator that the bulk of this thing is a snooze.
It doesn’t help that every aspect of its plot was done better before or since. As with House of Wax, you have the lengthy prologue in which the villain is thought killed, only to resurface some time later with a revenge plan. The "expert in some field helps the police solve a crime" story can be a lot of fun, but here it just feels like a lazy way to get a few more actors involved and pad the runtime, since I'm not sure how the cops can be so slow to put together the pieces (murder victims are all tied to the incarceration of a killer who escaped and was never found? Gee, who could it be?). And his creative killings might have inspired Dr Phibes or Theatre of Blood, but those movies also gave us a lot more to chew on and a faster pace to boot. I love the revenge driven killer plot as much as the next guy, but when he is only seeking to get back at three guys, that leaves a lot of movie to fill.
Plus I was unsure who we were supposed to be rooting for. Patrick O’Neal as the killer is somewhat in the Price tradition (albeit not nearly as delightful; he’s got more of a no-nonsense, Jason Robards-y presence), and we spend a lot of time with him as he sets his plan in motion – as a villain, he becomes highly un-threatening after a while. However the good guys simply aren’t as interesting, and it becomes deadly dull to watch them try to solve this mystery that doesn’t exist for us audience members – we know who the killer is and what the connections are, so watching a couple of older dudes try to figure it out is not what I call top notch entertainment.
One thing I did like was that he had different weapons for each kill. As with Shocker, the first act is all about the killer’s initial capture, before they get to the part of the movie anyone remembers. So 35 minutes into the movie, he escapes capture by cutting off his chained hand, and gets fitted with a metal “stump” that allows him to attach different devices to it – the standard hook, a claw, a knife, etc. Being 1966 the killings aren’t particularly gruesome (one has a very awkward attempt at a match cut, from his swinging hook to the waving baton of a conductor), but at least there’s a fun sort of “what will he use next?” angle to make up for the film’s lack of actual suspense or tension until the final showdown in the wax museum (which features a particularly wonderful denouement for the villain).
There’s also a bit of humor that helps some, mostly of the dry wit variety. I particularly liked when O’Neal is talking to a girl who he plans to use as his “assistant” and asks her what she does. After she gives a vague explanation of her work as a dancer and such, he gets to the point: “You’re a tramp.” Heh. I also liked the goofy final shot, which I guess was left over from the original “This will be a TV series” design, as our amateur sleuths/wax museum owners find another body. Off to the next theoretical case!
And while it was a bit intrusive, I love that Warner included the cheesy Fear Flasher (which pauses the action and flashes the screen red) on this DVD, with no option of shutting it off or anything. There’s some sort of charm in putting a very theatrical gimmick on a DVD after 40 years of horror movies will have left even the most casual fan completely numb to this movie’s attempts at terror – even without the warning, the scares would barely even register. It’d be like flashing the “put on your 3D glasses now!” icon on a 2D presentation of a movie or something. But apparently for years it was unavailable on home formats, so it’s cool that they went back to the original theatrical version for the DVD. Nice transfer too, softening the blow of the fact that they didn't include the trailer (nor could I embed the only one I found on Youtube, hence this random home video that came up instead).
What say you?